NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Gary Martin has been told he looks intimidating.
Maybe it’s because his sunglasses shield his eyes, like a poker player hiding a tell. It could be that his shaved head makes some folks think he’s an undercover cop. He’s not sure.
But he certainly didn’t appear threatening today, as he strummed his black Carvin acoustic guitar and sang “What I Got” by Sublime on the corner of Albany and George streets. As cars sped by and people walked on, that small slice of the city slowed to a crawl, as if Martin’s music had hit a pause button on the commotion of every day.
It was his first time in the Hub City—and, strangely enough, his first time playing for passersby on the sidewalk.
“I guess I always wanted to be a street performer,” he told TAPinto New Brunswick, “but I’m too successful. I’m in direct marketing.”
Something about downtown New Brunswick and the warm spring weather pushed him to go for it. His wife was here on business, and he would otherwise have wasted the day in his room at the Hyatt.
Instead, he set up camp on a wall bordering the Johnson & Johnson campus, in a yellow collared shirt, covering songs by Elvis Presley and chatting up locals.
He also found something surprising.
Martin had worked in New York City and lived upstate, in Putnam County. In Manhattan and other urban areas, he said, you’re a speck in a big sea. People pass the bald guy playing Katy Perry songs on his guitar and don’t look twice.
Not so in New Brunswick.
“You know what? People are shoving dollars at me, and I’m like, ‘Go buy yourself a cup of coffee, man. I’m all right,’ ” he said. “Everybody here is shooting me a smile.”
Martin, of course, met New Brunswick in one of its finer moments. Lunchtime on one of early spring’s nicest days might have a way of warming up people who are typically cold, he said.
Even so, the newly-minted street musician’s four days here taught him a few lessons about the place: Joyce Kilmer, the war veteran who wrote “Trees,” was born in the city. Rutgers is electric. Old Man Rafferty’s can cook a fine meal. And the area around George Street and the train station hosts quite a few people who seem hungry, homeless or high.
“But that’s every city, man,” Martin said.
And every city, no doubt, has its share of people who play music on the streets. Today in New Brunswick, that job belonged to Martin, who did it with pride, if only for a few hours.
“Sometimes, you can just smile at someone, and that’ll change their whole outlook on their day,” he said. “Life is about people. It’s about the people you engage every day, the people you interact with, the people you laugh, cry, sing and jam with.”
After saying goodbye, he gripped the neck of his guitar, clutched his pick and turned the tunes back on.